Sisters in Sound Kathy Gornik
Thiel Audio Products, 1026 Nandino Boulevard, Lexington, KY 40511. Tel: (859) 254-9427. Web: www.thielaudio.com.
Steve Guttenberg: Kathy, how did you and Jim Thiel connect?
Kathy Gornik: I met Jim when we were both attending the University of Dayton [in Ohio]. Years later, Jim was building preamps, amps, and mixers for studios and stage musicians, but when he wanted to market something of his own, he thought he could make the biggest difference in speaker design. This is when I came back into the picture, and Jim set about developing the Model 01, our first equalized two-way bookshelf loudspeaker.
Guttenberg: And you had a flair for business?
Gornik: I grew up in a family that owned a retail business, and I had osmosed the realities of running a small business. I understood cash flow, inventory control, personnel problems, bank loans, and the like—I had a good feel for all of that.
Guttenberg: There's a natural division of labor between you and Jim.
Gornik: Yes. Early on, Jim managed the technical and design aspects, and I ran everything else—I think any successful small business needs that sort of complementary management. As the company evolved and grew, our respective roles became even more distinct. Jim now focuses exclusively on engineering and production, while I target distribution, sales, and marketing.
Guttenberg: Was there a specific point in time where you thought, "Yes, Thiel is going to survive and prosper"?
Gornik: That happened right after the introduction of the CS3. [The CS3.6 is the current iteration of that model.—Ed.] The CS3 was our seventh model, and incorporated everything we had learned about building phase- and time-coherent loudspeakers, but we also added our trademark rounded baffles, foil capacitors, cast driver chassis, and copper motors. It sounded fantastic—and sold in greater numbers, and faster, than any other product in our history.
Guttenberg: And that was a good five years after you started the company!
Gornik: Right. Like a lot of small companies, we started out undercapitalized, but when it turned, it turned with a vengeance. We had some success before, but the CS3 was a huge hit. Even before that, all the indicators looked right. It was palpable.
Guttenberg: Fact is, you need more than just great-sounding products to make a go of it.
Gornik: True, there are lots of very mediocre products from strong companies that are hugely successful. Remember, in the mid-'80s the market for high-end audio was booming. We had strong support from our dealers—they were full of passion for our speakers. Investing more money into the company wouldn't have made a difference; we just had to put in the time and work through the process.
Guttenberg: Sounds like hard work. Do you guys ever have any fun?
Gornik: There are those wonderfully joyous times when Jim says, "I'm ready for a listening test of a new design—anybody want to join me in the listening room?" And then the whole place shuts down, and that's always a lot of fun.
Guttenberg: I'm curious: How close is the final design to that first prototype?
Gornik: There can be a tremendous amount of dialing-in. Jim's measurements can only take him so far, but he's an astute listener, and his listening tests are crucial to completing the design. We listen for cabinet resonances, diffraction effects, frequency-response anomalies or vowel-like colorations, and we've developed an extensive vocabulary to describe these sounds. The goal is to eliminate as many of those problems as we can, and to design a speaker that doesn't just "sound good." Rather, it should, as much as possible, preserve the signal that's being fed to the speaker. Nothing more, nothing less.
Guttenberg: How has Jim's working method evolved over the years?
Gornik: He now does the bulk of his work on a computer, but in the early days he had to first build a prototype, then measure and listen, and then rebuild and measure again. Now, if he wants to know what's going to happen when he changes a voice-coil from copper to aluminum, or change the shape of the diaphragm, he runs simulations. He's in the ballpark by the time he builds something.
Guttenberg: You've been involved with Thiel Audio for over 20 years. How do you maintain your commitment and energy?
Gornik: That's been a challenge. We had to reinvent ourselves, and I'm using the past tense because I believe we've made it through the process, for the time being. It was less difficult for me and tougher for Jim to move to a multichannel and custom-design-oriented mindset, but we had to adapt to a changing market and somehow maintain our core values. We're very proud of the fact that you can take any of the speakers we designed and "positioned" for the home-theater market and use them in a two-channel system. We gave up nothing—zero, nada—in musical terms. Rather, we adapted to home theater by making smaller, higher-efficiency speakers. For example, our new CS1.6 is 3dB more efficient than the model it replaces, the CS1.5. And the impetus to develop coaxial drivers grew out of the need to produce speakers that work equally well in a horizontal or vertical orientation. We also had to increase our speakers' output capability, so Jim started using short-voice-coil/long-gap drivers, which will raise the retail price a certain amount.
Guttenberg: Ah yes, price. Your cabinets, crossovers, and drivers are still built in your Kentucky factory. Are you tempted to move production offshore and save lots of money?
Gornik: We source some high-quality components—such as driver diaphragms, chassis, and magnets—from China, but I doubt we'll ever move the bulk of our production there. I suppose if we ever wanted to make a low-priced line, that might happen.